Testimony of Jenny Reed, Policy Analyst, DC Fiscal Policy Institute, At the Public Hearing on Bill 18-0777, the “Open Government Act of 2010,” District of Columbia Committee on Government Operations and the Environment

Chairwoman Cheh and members of the Committee, thank you for the opportunity to speak today.  My name is Jenny Reed, and I am a Policy Analyst with the DC Fiscal Policy Institute.  DCFPI engages in research and public education on the fiscal and economic health of the District of Columbia, with a particular emphasis on policies that affect low- and moderate-income residents.

I am here today to testify in support of Bill 18-777, the “Open Government Act of 2010″.  An open and transparent government can enhance democracy by enabling the public to better understand and participate more in government decisions.  Bill 18-777 would make a number of improvements to the transparency of the DC Government by establishing an office to oversee access to government information, improvements to the Freedom of Information Act process, and greater detail government spending, to name a few.

I am here today to testify on two specific titles in the bill; title III on “˜Agency Transparency’ and title VII on “˜Spending Transparency’.  Both of these titles contain recommendations to improve transparency in two key areas that DCFPI cares deeply about; the DC budget and agency performance data.

Title III: Agency Transparency Act

In the District government, a serious shortage of meaningful agency performance and caseload data means we often don’t know what the District is getting for the money it spends.  This critical information should play an important role in the budget process by informing decision-makers and the public as to how effectively and efficiently the District government is delivering services to residents.  Improving access to this type of data can not only help make this information clearer, but it can help provide critical context for important budget decisions.

DCFPI supports the creation of agency transparency plans that bill 18-777 calls for, and also strongly supports the inclusion of public comment into the development of these transparency plans.  The requirements in bill 18-777 will help make open to the public what types of high-value information the agency currently collects, and will direct the District to come up with an online centralized database to display this information.  This high-value information includes sources such as agency outcome data, caseload data, and output data, to name a few.

We suggest that along with requirements of what type of data is to be published, requirements are also added to the bill that require agencies to provide a short narrative describing what each dataset being posted consists of.  Often times, data is dumped into an online database without providing any context for what the figures mean.  This will be critical to help make the data an agency posts more understandable and transparent to the public.

Title VII: Spending Transparency

Too often today, it is difficult or impossible to determine what actual services are being funded each year due to major gaps in how budget information is put together and then shared with the public.  We believe that having access to clear, timely, and accurate budget information is critical to promoting a healthy discussion of budget priorities, enabling the DC Council to perform its agency oversight functions, and to empowering residents to hold public officials accountable for the delivery of public services.

We support the requirement in bill 18-777 for the creation of a searchable online budget database  that would provide a greater level of spending detail for many areas of the DC budget that have long been opaque.  For example, B18-777 would require for the first time a breakdown of how federal funds are spent within an agency in the DC budget.  For an agency like the Department of Housing and Community Development, where over 60 percent of the budget is made up of federal dollars, this information will help provide a more complete picture of their total budget.

Additionally, bill 18-777 also will require greater spending detail at the activity level in the DC budget.  The activity level is often where the public sees the spending on real programs and services they use, and bill 18-777 would require the additional spending detail by type of fund so the public can track how funds were spent on activities over time to make year to year comparisons.

Greater detail on special purpose funds, District grants, and spending detail on agency activities ‘ all of which this bill requires ‘ will help DC residents better understand what actual programs and services are being funded each year with their taxpayer dollars.

The CFO has recently launched a new website, CFOInfo, which has taken a laudable first step at posting budget information online for the public.  We suggest that any new budget information created as a result of bill 18-777 be added within CFOInfo’s current framework to help provide a centralized location for spending detail.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify.  I am happy to answer any questions.